Soft Structures at Tooth and Nail Gallery

Milwaukee’s art scene has always been cozy and communal, functioning at times like one big artist-run-space. That’s why it’s unfortunate that the curb-and-basement culture that so defined Milwaukee’s art scene took the hardest hit during the pandemic. Like a wildfire the troubles of 2020 spread through the cultural world, scorching the small, informal projects, and leaving only the hardiest organisms to survive. New growth several years later is a good sign for our cultural ecosystem. One of those sprouting new spaces, Tooth + Nail Gallery, resides inside a ceramics workshop started by artist Janelle Gramling last year. Its name alone tells you a lot about its awareness of the struggle, and how hard art must fight to survive inside a state with such abysmal public support for the arts.

Tooth + Nail’s second exhibition in the Lincoln Warehouse in Bayview is a subtle dandy, with a collection of work by the Milwaukee art community’s most celebrated artists. “Soft Structures,” which runs through June 1, offers work interested in fiber, materiality, and expanding and variable form. It’s a focus that fits well in the particular exhibition space, allowing the art to mingle ambiguously with that of the workshop.

A wall of work clearly dedicated to the exhibition dissolves into the workspace at either end. On one, Thomas Colton Romero’s installation descends from the ceiling in front of a glorious expanse of east-facing windows. The work hides a little in plain sight, using the openness of the space to its advantage. Once one recognizes and studies his gorgeous network of recycled wool, it opens space in which long-time Milwaukee doyenne Melissa Dorn’s brilliant scattering of soft domestically inspired sculptures can do its very clean dirty work.

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Nearby hangs a striking tapestry of a landscape by another fixture on the Milwaukee scene, Rosy Petri, that adds the lone representational offering in the show. Overhead another surprise installation of soft sculpture by Jennifer Bastien looms, appropriately titled The Red Drops. Like Romero’s work Bastien’s helps activate and define the space of exhibition. I’m a sucker for Jaymee Harvey Willms’s work, and the one included in “Soft Structures” is gripping and typical of her appropriated-object sculpture dealing with memory, trauma, history, and contexts of meaning. The softness of the light of three candles against her white altar of fused, whitewashed objects is as fuzzy and warm as any crocheted Afghan.

The beautiful creative interpretation of ‘softness’ continues with Okja Kwon’s Untitled (re) rooting, an earthwork of sorts that sits on a pedestal. A heap of dark soil, tea, hair, and gouache nests four delicate glass bowls. The work is formally and conceptually soft; however, It also softens the boundaries of the space of art itself by considering how the natural world is transformed into human culture. This very issue sparked an exchange between Gramling and I about Walter de Maria’s Earth Room. She mentioned how one of the students visiting the workshop questioned Kwon’s work as “art.” The discussion itself illustrated the value of unexpected and indeterminant stuff in the world; the soft and transitional things. We decided that art that questions boundaries functions better in places like Tooth and Nail than in dedicated temples of reception where boundaries and expectations steer our perceptions.

Our talk was soft…like the light, like the surfaces of the work, like the boundaries of the operations within Tooth and Nails multifunctional placeness. The Milwaukee art world, too, is a soft structure; a network of long threads that cooperate to build a single interconnected fabric. It’s fragile and vulnerable to sharp objects at right angles, but strong as hell end-to-end.

Event Listings: April 28–May 4, 2024

Mitchell Park Domes

  • Art in the Domes
  • Sunday, April 28, 9 a.m.–4 p.m.

Milwaukee Art Museum

  • Drop-In Art Making: Kohl’s Art Studio
  • Sunday, April 28, 10 a.m.–4 p.m.

Milwaukee Art Museum

  • Free Day + Celebration: Alfred Bader’s 100th Birthday
  • Sunday, April 28, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.

Racine Art Museum

  • Racine Unified Student Art Exhibition 2024 Opening Reception
  • Sunday, April 28, 1–4 p.m.


  • MARN Trivia with Sculpture Milwaukee
  • Monday, April 29, 6–8 p.m.

Museum of Wisconsin Art

  • Art+Wellness | The Pleasure of Flowers
  • Wednesday, May 1, 10:30–11:30 a.m.

Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum

  • Work from Home Wednesday: coworking session at the Villa
  • Wednesday, May 1, 12–3 p.m.

Milwaukee Art Museum

  • Member Preview Day: “Arresting Beauty: Julia Margaret Cameron”
  • Thursday, May 2, 10 a.m.–8 p.m.


  • “Why a Book? 4 Artists on Why and How They Make Artist Books”
  • Thursday, May 2, 5:30–8 p.m.

Mitchell Street Arts (MiSA)

  • Mitchell Street Soundscape Community Listening Session
  • Thursday, May 2, 6–7:30 p.m.

Milwaukee Art Museum

  • Opening Lecture: “Arresting Beauty: Julia Margaret Cameron”
  • Thursday, May 2, 6:15–7:15 p.m.

Racine Art Museum

  • First Friday at RAM
  • Friday, May 3, 10 a.m.–8 p.m.

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Milwaukee Art Museum

  • Gallery Talk: “Arresting Beauty: Julia Margaret Cameron”
  • Friday, May 3, 12–1 p.m.


  • Interconnectivity: Conversation with Kenzi Rayelle + Performance featuring Emmitt J. Williams
  • Friday, May 3, 5:00 p.m.–8:00 p.m.

Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA)

  • Educator Open House
  • Saturday, May 4, 10 a.m.–2 p.m.

Milwaukee Art Museum

  • Drop-In Art Making: Kohl’s Art Studio
  • Saturday, May 4, 10 a.m.–4 p.m.

Milwaukee Art Museum

  • Member Swap Weekend
  • Saturday, May 4, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.

Milwaukee Art Museum

  • Story Time in the Galleries
  • Saturday, May 4, 10:30–11 a.m.

Milwaukee Art Museum

  • Member Tours: Hidden Treasures
  • Saturday, May 4, 11–12 p.m.

Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA)

  • Mark Mulhern Artist Talk
  • Saturday, May 4, 1–2 p.m.

Milwaukee Art Museum

  • Drop-In Tours: Architecture and Collection Highlights
  • Saturday, May 4, 2–3 p.m.

Kenilworth Square East, 4th Floor Gallery

  • 2024 BFA/BA Exhibition
  • Saturday, May 4, 5–7 p.m.

Saint Kate – The Arts Hotel

  • AIR Time, Art & Studio Tour with AIR Anwar Floyd-Pruitt
  • Saturday, May 4, 6:30 pm

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